This article was originally published in Issue 19.

The Myth: Let’s explore the popular belief that the average “shade tree” mechanic can modify his vehicle so it’s invulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

The Upsides: Picture a multi-megaton nuclear device has just detonated 200 miles over North Dakota. The resulting pulse knocks out the power grid and most electronics throughout the heartland.

So, what a game-changer it would be to drive a functional vehicle through a landscape of horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and inline skates. Forget about running away from a pack of mounted marauders. Your spike-covered and skull-adorned EMP-hardened truck would be truly awesome. Speeds over 50 mph, serious load-carrying capacity, and plenty of passenger room — none of these come standard on some old nag you commandeered from the local petting zoo.

The Downsides: First off, you may be wasting your time trying to modify a vehicle that doesn’t need modifying. Modern cars are somewhat shielded to prevent interference between the numerous electronic systems onboard. In some alleged U.S. government EMP tests, vehicles purportedly restarted after users disconnected the battery and then hooked it back up.

Secondly, I don’t believe that the average person has the knowhow (or parts) to modify a modern vehicle enough to survive a strong EMP strike.

Sadly there are more negatives. The parts that allegedly provide shielding could be expensive. And the corner gas station won’t be open for fuel, oil, and spare parts.

But aside from the expense and the uncertainties, you might as well paint a giant bull’s-eye all over your sweet ride, because it’s one hell of a noisy attention-grabbing target.

The Reality: Which kind of EMP are you worried about? They come in two flavors. First is the Carrington Effect, which is a solar event named after English astronomer Richard Carrington. In 1859, this fellow (and people across the world) watched in surprise as their telegraphs stopped working or caught fire from the effects of the greatest recorded solar storm in history. This massive solar flare had the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs. Scary!

And then there’s the nuclear kind of EMP. More scary! Rather than a lengthy blast from the sun, a nuclear EMP is a pulse less than a nanosecond in duration.

As with most things in life, size matters. If the second type of EMP attack happens, it happened because we are at nuclear war. Who cares if your Escalade won’t start. We’re at nuclear war!

Yes, vehicles with carburetors (usually pre-1980) will be mostly unharmed by an electromagnetic pulse. Do you want hordes of desperate people to follow the only set of fresh tire tracks in the area — right up to the gate of your secret homestead? I’d say no.

How about a bicycle instead? You can take a mountain bike completely off the road (and ride it almost anywhere else). And that old horse I was joking about earlier? It doesn’t run on gasoline, so refueling can be as easy as letting the thing graze on grass. But for those who can’t let go of the internal combustion engine, there’s always the dirt bike.

These off-road machines can last a long time, subsisting on simple repairs that you can perform yourself (no MIT doctorate required). Older dirt bikes don’t have a single computer chip in them either, so they’re good to go. Just a cache with some stabilized fuel and a few common spare parts could keep this thing running for months or even years. Let’s just hope that we last that long.


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